Maverick developer Kenji Eno has a lot to answer for: He’s the only creator who’s ever made me check to see if my potential game purchases included their matching braille instruction sheet and his Saturn-born sci-fi horror Enemy Zero blessed/cursed me with an unreasonably high tolerance for horror-tinged FMV adventures. I love them, I think. Or if not love then I’m at least fatally curious, like a slug eyeing up a saucer of beer.
But an adoration for nineties CG people in spooky settings isn’t the only reason why I picked up this 1997 virus-themed horror mystery, oh no. I discovered in a previous Googling that this has one very strong link to the wonderfully wonky Countdown Vampires, a game that feels a lot like you’re playing an off-brand Resident Evil designed by people who’s only response to concerned producers asking “Are you going with biological mutants or ancient monsters for the plot of this one?” was “Yes.“. That’s a huge positive in my book because nothing makes me sit up and pay attention quite like a game that’s threatening to do whatever the heck it likes with as many disconnected ideas as possible. How are they related? Is this a prequel? Does this shed light on any/all of Countdown Vampires’ strangeness? Ah. Yes. I think it’s a good idea to look at R?MJ on its own before we go down that rabbit hole.
Unlike Countdown Vampires, R?MJ – the title of this game’s pronounced “Em Jay” by the way (yes, they’re ignoring the “R?”. No, I don’t know why) which apparently stands for Mutation Jack. I’d like to say “All will be explained shortly” but… well, read on and you’ll see – had a 1997 release on the Saturn as well as the PlayStation, with the Saturn game (used to capture every screenshot shown here) coming on just one disc while Sega’s sworn rival splits the story across two CDs. I expected this to mean Sony’s port would have some bonus features or perhaps better quality/smoother animation but from a quick look over comparable footage I can see no difference between the two of them at all, making this decision yet another unsolved puzzle to add to R?MJ’s ever-growing mountain of mystery.
If you’ve ever played the unhelpfully titled D or the like you’ll feel instantly at home with the basic framework found here: The game is viewed from a first-person perspective (although R?MJ has you invisibly shadowed by up to four friends depending on where you are in the story) and pressing a direction on the d-pad will activate an FMV sequence that either turns you around by a pre-set amount or moves you towards the next “hot spot” in the area, and from there you can attempt to either interact with the scenery directly or use an item from your limited inventory in the correct way to move the plot along. Environmental interaction is mercifully spared the potential tedium of splitting things into individual examine/take/manipulate commands by instead merging everything together under a single button press the game likes to call the “Five Senses” system, which in practise is a fancy way of saying “I’m going to do something here if I can”. As with all games of this type there are some things you can’t notice until you’ve performed another task first (no matter how painfully obvious that person-sized gap between the emergency shutter door and the floor is, for example), or events that won’t trigger unless you’re in exactly the right spot in the room and facing in a specific direction. These snags happen often enough for you to think “Tch! FMV adventure games, eh?” but not quite often enough for it to become a real I’m-going-to-need-a-break-here irritant. This is in part thanks to the incessant chatter of lead character Hajime’s (he likes motorbikes and rock music, by the way) friends at almost every notable spot in the game, commenting as they do on potentially dangerous places or hinting that there might be something worth investigating nearby. These messages are fine by themselves even if they do make the game a bit stop-start as you [im]patiently wait while they dish out a repeated snippet of dialogue but less tolerable are the times a bizarre “ＮＯ ＦＥＡＲ” message displays across the bottom of the screen accompanied by an ominous-sounding musical sting that shows up at – and I have tested this and then read the manual front-to-back just to be sure – completely random moments. It’s literally meaningless and utterly baffling. Is it a warning? Is it a meta-message trying to encourage the player directly? Nobody knows. You also have to tolerate hearing them say generic “Hurry!” and similar filler lines even though you’re playing a game where you know nothing will ever move or happen unless you make it so, which comes across as less a warning of potential doom and more an uncomfortable reminder of the limitations of the genre. A more practical concern is that not a single one of these spoken messages are subtitled, making the already nutty plot virtually impossible to understand for the hard of hearing, those who have to play surrounded by background noise, and less-than-fluent importers alike. Even if you are blessed with the hearing or quiet space necessary to discern every line with crystal clarity the awful scene direction – all excessive quick cuts, bizarre framing, and whirly camera movements – conspires against your understanding and emotional connection with key events. For a game that is made up of nothing but movie sequences you’d have thought they’d make sure the plot-relevant bits didn’t look like the cameraman was learning to rollerskate on a floor covering in ball bearings, but you’d be wrong.
A few optional scenes and one very brave idea of deciding where you’ll investigate next based on a literal coin toss performed by an NPC do their best to inject some unpredictability into what is usually a strictly linear genre, but they’re so short and inconsequential they make no difference in the long run. I’m sure part of this is just down to the realities of creating a profitable game – FMV is expensive to produce in any era and always takes up a lot of room on whatever storage medium you’re using – but on balance I would have preferred to see the game do what it can do well than try to dip its toes into things the genre wasn’t quite capable of delivering. More typical of this kind of adventure are the death sequences that play out if you go poking your nose in certain places or make the wrong decision at a crucial point in the story. There’s always a danger in an FMV tale that these will come out of the blue and feel unfair or forced upon you for the sake of making the game feel longer, but they’re actually balanced quite well here and if you do make the wrong decision you can’t honestly say the game didn’t warn you or give you the information necessary to make the right choice beforehand. You can even die in real-time too if you’re not careful: The opening segment of the game sees you trapped inside a hospital with (eventually) deadly airborne viruses on the loose – hanging around here for too long is naturally not a good idea. So early on you find a very “Definitely not a nineties-style G-Shock” looking watch that handily gives out an audible beep when you’re in a heavily infected area and can not only show you the current threat level but your own total life too. Now these values do change as you play and move around but either your health bar is so large or the risk of infection so small that even leaving my party sitting in a heavily infected area for a while didn’t seem to do a damned thing, which took all of the wind out of not only that theoretical hazard’s sails but a lot of the “Oh no, the virus!” talk too. I can happily report that a later danger – your oxygen supply level in a biohazard suit – will be the death of you if you let it run out, even if the on-screen timer follows a strange internal logic rather than actual time passed – it even feels quite tense in there as your normally full-screen view is partially obscured by the suit’s visor and your breathing echoes inside the helmet as you walk around. Sadly that small segment’s as close as the game ever gets to frighteni- no, as close as it gets to being “Ooh, they might be in trouble now!”.
You see R?MJ is supposed to be a horror game, albeit one that focuses on the fear of death by deadly infection than goopy monsters and violence. This is a great idea – viruses that are invisible to the naked eye take far less time and effort to render for starters – but more seriously it’s a fantastic plot device if a writer really wants to ramp up the tension in a limited group of characters: Anyone could become infected at any time and from there it’s a race against the clock as tempers fray, allies fall, people turn on each other as two infected friends find one vaccine, and mysterious string-pullers pull strings in poorly-lit room for large sums of money and other nefarious reasons. It could be, anyway. What actually happens here is you and your upbeat friends meet another total stranger who instantly becomes another upbeat and completely trustworthy friend and you all stick together through thick and thin and reversible deadly infections until the goopy monster and violence show up at the end to unavoidably kill a few of them without warning. There’s nothing wrong with the idea in principle – Corpse Party‘s supernatural horror certainly doesn’t suffer from having a group of friends try to do their best for each other under grisly circumstances – but here are no difficult decisions to make, no jump scares to brace yourself for, and most shocking of all – no plot.
At first I simply assumed my already limited grasp of Japanese had utterly failed me as I reached the end and felt I’d missed huge chunks of the story – I must have forgotten something or misunderstood a crucial scene, and that’s why it didn’t make any sense. So I went to the trouble of looking up a few Japanese reviews – I don’t mind admitting I’m stupid if I can forsake what little pride I have left in exchange for juicy facts – but no, everyone else is just as flummoxed by the whole affair as I am. R?MJ doesn’t make sense because there’s no sense to make of it, the plot is filled with more holes than Swiss cheese pushed through a sieve and what’s there is exactly as nonsensical as I thought it was the first time around. It all starts off reasonably enough – an explosion traps you and your friends inside a contaminated hospital filled with dead phone lines and one newspaper – and you can pretend you don’t need to know why nobody is coming to rescue you or even just casually wonder why a general hospital suffered an explosion because this is the beginning and you’re sure there must be a very good reason for all this that will form part of a grand reveal in due course. What actually happens is from that potentially-good starting point the game dives headlong into a pit of evil old men, secret science labs, ancient ruins under the hospital, your close friend’s actually the “good” clone from some ancient extracted DNA (oh yes) and then there’s an escape sequence involving a train and a boulder and a killer monster that’s… What? Who? Sorry? It turns blue at one point too. Oh and that link between this and Countdown Vampires I mentioned at the top? One of the characters in this – Misato – is a secondary NPC in that too. Which might have been the seeds of an interesting plot thread if she didn’t explode at the climax of this game whilst cradling a hat. Really.
And to think this game had a novelisation. Does that book fix any of the many, many, issues of the game’s story? As far as I can gather – no.
There is some sort of justice to be found in knowing R?MJ has been “officially” designated a kusoge but in all honesty there’s not as much that separates this from the better examples of its genre as I’d like to admit. There’s real effort in here: The FMV transitions as you move around are smooth and reasonably detailed even though the humans are poorly animated (they were allegedly motion-captured, although you’d never know it from looking at the way they move) and the scene direction often leaves a lot to be desired. The group chatter as you explore is a really nice idea done badly and the game’s attempts at adding real time danger on top of the expected death-by-movie sequences should be applauded even if one of them doesn’t seem to actually kill you off (not before you personally die of old age, anyway). It all comes down to that terrible story: It doesn’t even make sense in the “Dumb summer blockbuster movie” kind of way Countdown Vampires did, never mind project a “fear of death” as the introductory sequence is so keen on plastering across the screen. It’s a lot like you’re being subjected to half of half of an unfinished story, like a desperate student’s essay written on their knee as the bus pulls in to the school gates.
Having said that while R?MJ may not be so bad it’s good but it is as least so bad it’s memorably confusing, which to my mind is still better than a game being so OK you finish it, put it back on the shelf, and never think of it again. If you’ve got an FMV itch that must be scratched and you’ve already played all the usual suspects this is at least so cheap you only have to part with pocket change if you want to give it a go and the experience will definitely be something to talk about, even if a lot of that discussion involves shouting “What the heck was that?!” to anyone who’ll listen.